- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In what might have been his most hawkish speech to date on the Middle East, Barack Obama sought to shore up his shaky support in the Jewish community with a security-first, diplomacy-second blueprint. Compared to the speech given on the same stage just over 24 hours earlier by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Obama clearly positioned himself as the stronger champion of Israel.

What looked like a home run, though, likely will not be, as the candidate sounded a decidedly different note the very next day. Worse, it is not the only set of mixed signals sent by Mr. Obama.

Speaking to the 7,000-strong crowd at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, Mr. Obama gave an important nod to Israel’s need for defensible borders. Miss Rice did not. Mr. Obama made no overt distinctions between Hamas and Fatah, and he even appeared to take a jab at the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas by referencing “government-funded textbooks filled with hatred toward Jews.”

Miss Rice, by contrast, lavished praise on Mr. Abbas. Then there was Mr. Obama’s headline-making proclamation that Jerusalem “must” remain the “undivided” capital of the Jewish state. There was no such reference from the secretary of state.

As people spilled out of the packed hall, Mr. Obama had gained many newfound admirers - and he had reassured plenty of others. A day later though, he undid much of the goodwill he had accumulated. Most damaging was the rather curious explanation about what he had actually meant by “undivided.” Anyone who follows Israeli politics understands “undivided” to mean that the eastern half of Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control and not serve as the Palestinian capital. Not Mr. Obama, however. An unnamed Obama adviser told Agence France Press that Mr. Obama’s definition of “undivided” was strictly literal, that the holy city is “not going to be divided by barbed wire.”

If that was what the candidate had intended to convey, he failed miserably. In dozens of conversations immediately afterward - either overheard by or involving this columnist - not one concerned Mr. Obama’s desire to avoid barbed wire fencing from running through Jerusalem.

Of all the knocks against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, lack of clarity in carefully-crafted speeches is not one of them. No wonder many cynics believe that Mr. Obama was pulling the equivalent of the old newspaper stunt of running the allegation on the front page, but burying the correction on page 32 the next day.

This latest flap only continues the confusion many have about Mr. Obama. Several AIPAC conference attendees who otherwise like Mr. Obama cited as deeply troubling the reporting of blogger Ed Lasky regarding some of Mr. Obama’s advisers. Two in particular understandably cause angst in the Jewish community: former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired four-star Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak. Both have made unusually brazen claims about undue Jewish political influence.

Mr. Brzezinski, who has no formal role but has been praised by Mr. Obama and has been asked to stand at the candidate’s side, last month accused “some people in the Jewish community” of being “McCarthy-ite.” Mr. Brzezinski had made similar comments last year, only to be later embraced by Mr. Obama. Mr. McPeak in a 2003 interview appeared to lay blame for lack of peace in the Middle East on people who “vote here in favor of Israel” in “New York City” and “Miami.” Mr. Obama selected Mr. McPeak to serve as a military adviser and national campaign co-chair.

To his credit, though, Mr. Obama counts among his early backers staunch supporters of the Jewish state, such as Rep. Robert Wexler and Rep. Steve Rothman. On his staff, Middle East adviser Eric Lynn is solid and smart. And highly regarded pro-Israel advocates from Chicago who ostensibly have kicked Mr. Obama’s tires, such as AIPAC Treasurer Lee Rosenberg, maintain that a President Obama would be a true friend of the Jewish state.

With the strong historical Democratic tilt of the Jewish community, Mr. Obama is still the odds-on favorite to capture the strong majority of those votes. But since Mr. McCain is not ceding that ground to him, Mr. Obama cannot rest.

Topping Mr. Obama’s to-do list should be distancing himself from the likes of Mr. Brzezinski and Mr. McPeak and other Jimmy Carter acolytes. Beyond that, Mr. Obama needs to be more careful - and more consistent - in discussing the Middle East. Otherwise he could find the Jewish community more “divided” than he would like it to be.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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